The Urge to connect with that which transcends our experience, be it a higher power, another person or some aspect of nature, is one of the things that makes us human. People view the object of this quest differently, as well as what it means to achieve or experience it. Yet regardless of how it's understood, the urge to participate in or belong to something greater and more lasting than ourselves - a feeling born of an awareness of our mortality - is what defines us as spiritual beings. Though often dismissed as ephemeral or, worse, "satanic," popular music has given voice to this quest for transcendence since its beginnings. Pop singers are rarely as outwardly spiritual as, say, gospel acts; however, they're forever pointing beyond themselves, be it to some higher ideal or vision of deliverance. Fontella Bass's "Rescue Me," the Four Tops's "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross," Al Green's "Tired of Being Alone," and U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" are but a handful of radio hits from the past few decades that express a longing for something more.
What, other than transcendence, is Jimi Hendrix talking about in "Purple Haze" when he sings, "'scuse me, while I kiss the sky"? Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart" might be about a guy who walks out on his family, and that's a far from honorable response to his situation, but the record's protagonist also expresses a deep yearning for what's lacking in his life. Heard on a jukebox or radio, the song's chorus can take on meaning beyond the particulars of it's narrative, ringing out like a cry for just about anything that could fill the void it's listeners might be experiencing. Heard in the right light, secular and even carnal records have the power to speak to transcendental concerns, occasionally to the point of galvanizing their historical or cultural moments. Regardless of their spiritual leanings, all of the subjects discussed in this book (including Public Enemy, Madonna, Johnny Cash, Nine Inch Nails, Marvin Gaye, Eminem, Polly Harvey, Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen) make music that expresses a basic striving for transcendence.
Artists' stories and personalities inform these discussions, but only in as much as they illuminate the struggles and concerns that run through their music. "I'll Take You There" is a beautifully written, wide-ranging and illuminating guide to some of the most potent popular music ever recorded.
Bill Friskics-Warren was lecturer in Church and Society at Vanderbilt University. He as written about popular music for the New York Times, Newsday, the Washington Post, the Nashville Scene, No Depression, the Oxford American and Rock & Rap Confidential, among other publications.